BALTIMORE – One time when this city summoned me to jury duty, Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Johnson told me to go home. Now I’ve got permission to stay home permanently. The two are connected.
In the mail, the other day came a postcard from the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, from the city’s jury commissioner, informing me I will never against be asked to sit on a jury.
They’ll have to find 12 other people.
You think this is easy in the city of Baltimore? That day in Judge Johnson’s courtroom, we went through the familiar voir dire process, in which many prospective jurors are weeded out to avoid possible prejudice.
“Please stand,” the judge told about 150 of us gathered in his big courtroom, “if you or anyone in your family has been the victim of a crime.”
Good luck with that. As we head toward the brand new year, the city police department says we’ve already had 42,650 reported incidents of street crime in 2019.
That long-ago day in Judge Johnson’s courtoom, from my place near the back of the big room, the judge’s graying head was only partly visible from his seat behind the bench, as though the rest of him had been buried beneath the avalanche of criminal cases collapsing into the courthouse every week of every year.
So now came the big movement of the day: all these people, responding to the judge’s order, standing up because somewhere along the line, a crime had been committed against them or someone close to them – and, therefore, they might bring a certain bias to the next criminal defendant appearing.
Within two or three seconds, roughly two-thirds of us were standing.
And then, one by one, we were each summoned to the bench, where a prosecutor, and a defense attorney, and the judge, questioned us about our ability to be objective despite being victims.
Thus began the long, labored, tedious voir dire process, which can go on for hours and is a big part of why so many court cases take so long to grind into gear – and why it takes so long to put a jury together.
How do you find 12 objective, unbiased people when so many of us walk in with our personal history – and our biases – already in place?
On this particular morning, Judge Johnson was about to try two alleged cocaine dealers. One was a bearded guy built like an outside linebacker. The other was his girlfriend, a diminutive redhead who looked as if she’d missed the last cut for varsity cheerleader.
The first prospective juror was rejected by the defense because she’d recently been burglarized and was ready to nail any defendants who crossed her path. “I came home,” she said, “and there was nothing left but my cats. And I live in a building with a security guard.”
I was summoned to the bench under a different category. I was rejected for having written countless columns about drug traffickers over the years. The defense suspected I might have a few preconceived notions.
In fact, I’ve been turned down enough times, for similar reasons relating to reporting, that it became a waste of time for all of us – me, and the courts – for me to keep getting summoned, and keep getting quickly dismissed. In this city, citizens are called back every year or two, such is the volume of cases waiting to be tried.
That’s why, the other day, there arrived in my mail the official notice – by mutual agreement – that I am permanently dismissed from jury duty.
But let’s go back to that courtroom filled with about 150 prospective jurors – and two-thirds of us rising when the judge asked if we, or anyone in our family, had been victimized by a crime.
How long before such a crime rate means there simply aren’t enough people left to judge criminal cases?
In this city, how long before a judge says, “How many of you have been victimized?” – and an entire room of prospective jurors lurches to its feet, and not a soul is left who can claim to be objective?
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.